Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine: Reflections on Space, Aliens, and Frontiers of Exploration.

The Buckley Program hosted Jim Bridenstine for a lecture titled “American Preeminence in Space” on April 27, 2023. Jim Bridenstine served as the 13th administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Before that, he was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy and Congressman representing Oklahoma’s 1st congressional district. 

William Wang:  I am curious about your life before being the administrator of NASA. Why did you decide to join the Navy after college, and what motivated you to return to public service and run for Congress?  

Jim Bridenstine: So I grew up wanting to be a fighter pilot. Even from my youngest years, I drew pictures of airplanes. After I graduated from college, the best path for me to become a pilot was to join the military, so I did that. I talked to a recruiter, took the flight aptitude test, went to the physicals, and got qualified to become a Navy pilot. I was on active duty for nine years as a Navy pilot. I participated in the early days of the war in Iraq, and even before that, the war in Afghanistan. 

I was on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. At the time, I was flying the Hawkeye. and then, I eventually came home from those operations. I then transitioned to the F-18 Hornet and flew as a Red Air, an aggressor at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, which is the command to Top Gun. So my job was to fly enemy profiles and get shot down—I did that for three years, which I enjoyed very much. In those years, I got married, my wife and I had our first baby, and we had to make a decision: am I going to stay in the Navy, or am I shifting to the private sector? And we opted to go into the private sector, where I went to work for a company called Wyle Laboratories in Orlando, Florida. I was part of a team that did the acquisition training systems for naval aviation, including flight simulators. I did that for about a year and a half. 

Then, my wife’s mother got multiple sclerosis, so we decided we were going to move back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I ran a nonprofit museum, the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, for a couple of years. And then eventually, I ran for the U.S. House of Representatives.  

WW: If we can transition to your work at NASA, I was wondering about your proudest moment as administrator. There were a lot of exciting things that happened in your tenure there, but was there a particular moment that you are particularly fond of?  

JB: Probably the best thing that happened was when we launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since 2011. That was a big achievement, not easy to accomplish, but we got it done. And now, the International Space Station is regularly receiving astronauts that are launched from American soil. 

We also expanded our acquisition program. The value of that program is that NASA did not have to purchase, own, and operate rockets. Instead, we were buying a service from a commercial company. So we took that model and expanded it to commercial lunar payload services to take payloads to the surface of the moon. We also created a commercial human landing system for the Artemis program to eventually return to the moon, this time to stay. We also created Commerical LEO (low-Earth orbit) destinations, which as the replacement for the International Space Station, will be numerous commercial space stations. But in each of these cases, the government is a customer of a service, not the owner and operator of hardware. So the model we needed was multiple providers competing on cost and innovation to provide those services to the government. And then we need each of those providers to go get customers that are not NASA. Because if they do that, it will drive down the cost for taxpayers and increase access to all the things that NASA wants to do.  

WW: On just one of the companies that NASA has worked with, SpaceX: there was a recent “successful failure” with their Starship explosion. I was wondering if NASA itself has the capacity to have “successful failures,” or if it must qualify every component until perfection.

JB: Yes, so that’s the big difference between the government purchasing, owning, and operating hardware and purchasing from a commercial company that can build its own hardware. So when the government does the entire process, there are federal regulations that are very burdensome. It’s very complex, time-consuming, and expensive. So if instead of going through that whole process, we can buy services rather than own and operate the hardware, we can rapidly develop and innovate much faster. 

As you mentioned, for the Starship explosion, some people looked at that and said, “Oh, well that’s a terrible catastrophe.” Actually, it’s not. It flew for four and a half minutes before it exploded, and the amount of data that they got is extraordinary, and they’re going to be able to make all kinds of improvements, try again, and be successful.  

That’s what they’re applying to hardware at SpaceX, and that is not the system that the U.S. government can apply because of the federal acquisition regulations. Now, you can also look at SLS (Space Launch System), which has also been successful. It launched for the first time ever, and it not only had been a successful mission, but it took the Orion crew capsule into orbit. The Orion crew capsule went all the way to the moon, did a bunch of maneuvers around the moon, and then came home, reentered Earth’s atmosphere safely, and landed. Now that was successful too, but there’s a difference because of the way the U.S. government regulations require the development of those programs. We expect it to work on the first try, whereas commercial companies expect to fly, test, fail, and fix. They have a much more iterative process that in many cases can go faster. In some cases, it doesn’t. I think it’s important for the U.S. government to be able to take advantage of both systems.  

WW: We know that with the Artemis mission, there’s a Canadian astronaut, Jeremy Hansen, on board. That’s exemplary of global leadership and working with allies. I was wondering how we should work with, or work against, our geopolitical adversaries on space exploration.  

JB: So the interesting origin of NASA is that it was intentionally separated from the Department of Defense. President Eisenhower wanted to make sure that NASA was not part of the military-industrial complex. he wanted it to be a tool of science, discovery, and exploration. But he also wanted it to be a tool of diplomacy. And so NASA has always been maintained as independent from the Department of Defense. That has worked over the years. If you go back to 1972 and the height of the Cold War, we had the Apollo-Soyuz program with the Russians. And then moving forward, we had the Shuttle-Mir program, again with the Russians. And then we eventually got to the point where we built the International Space Station, half of which is Russian. 

So we have a long history of using space exploration and discovery as a tool of diplomacy. It has been very effective, and I think that’s an important capability. Right now, we’ve got 15 nations that operate the International Space Station. We’ve had astronauts from at least 19 countries. We also have over 700 agreements with countries around the globe for all kinds of different activities in space. So NASA is really a tool of diplomacy. We need to use all of the instruments of national power to position our country for success, and NASA is in fact one of those instruments.  

WW: Do you think that kind of scientific collaboration and cooperation has been harder given the recent tension? For example, with regard to the Artemis Accords, it seems that China and Russia have been quite dismissive of that.

JB: Yeah, there’s no doubt. But this is not new and it’s not unusual. Countries are going to, in many cases, compete against each other. But in other cases, it’s going to take collaboration to achieve outcomes that are desirable for all parties. 

I think it’s important to recognize that even countries that have strong disagreements and, in some cases, are even hostile towards each other, need to have channels of communication. There should never be a time when countries can’t talk to each other. We learned that in the Cuban Missile Crisis. My concern is we’re having to learn that again right now, given the great power competition that is ensuing. But countries do need to talk. NASA is a tool of diplomacy and a channel of communication. It needs to be used as one of those resources that the U.S. government has in its tool belt.  

WW: Thank you for your insight. When you were nominated as administrator, now administrator and former Senator Nelson said that the head of NASA ought to be a space professional and not a politician. Do you think that’s going to be a trend to stay, where NASA will be spearheaded by politicians instead of astronauts?  

JB: I’m not sure what the trend will be. What I do know is that the NASA administrator position is not a science position and it’s not an engineering position. Now, scientists and engineers can, and have, made great NASA administrators. But still, the position is political. I can tell you it’s the most political position I’ve ever had in my life, and I used to be a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In that position, you’re dealing with your own administration, which includes the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Security Council, the National Space Council, and then, you have the Vice President’s Office and the President’s Office.  

And there are lots of different opinions and disparate ideas that you have to weigh and figure out how to put together an agenda that accomplishes the objectives of the president—because the NASA Administrator really works for one person, and that’s the president. All of these other agencies and bureaucracies work for the president. I think a lot of times in the history of NASA, that had not been recognized. But at the end of the day, you have to work really hard within your own administration to get a budget and an agenda that matches what the president wants to achieve. Once that budget is realized, that request gets made to Congress. And while you’re doing all of that, you’re working with the heads of space agencies from around the globe, and with the ministers of finance from around the globe. At the same time, you have to convince 435 House members and a hundred senators that are very evenly divided, and in many cases, don’t like each other. But you have to get them all to agree on a direction and get them to ultimately vote yes on the funding of your programs and the policies that you put in place. So if you’re spending one hour engineering something as the NASA administrator, you’re spending your time incorrectly.  

WW: I think there has been a bipartisan approval of the work you’ve done as NASA administrator. One of the decisions you made as administrator was to shift the focus to the Moon and then use that as a launchpad to go to Mars. Just to stretch our imaginations a bit, what do you think is next to explore after Mars?  

JB: Oh my goodness. Can I answer with two things? 

WW: Sure. 

JB: So I think the first thing we need to explore is Europa. Europa is a moon of Jupiter. It’s an ice world with liquid water on the inside. Think of a moon the size of our Moon, except the entire moon is water. And it’s got an ice shield, which protects the inside from the radiation of deep space. We know because as it orbits Jupiter, we’re seeing tides, massive plumes of water, and liquid water spewing out of Europa. It’s a fascinating planet where we could find life that is not from Earth. We could find life in another world! I’m not saying we will, but I am saying there’s a probability that we could. So I’m very excited about the future of studying Europa. 

The other thing I think we need to study more is Pluto. When I was an administrator, I unilaterally declared Pluto as a planet regardless of what happened back in 2006 when they downgraded it. Pluto is fascinating: it has a multilayer atmosphere and it’s got five moons. We now believe that it has liquid water on the inside. The largest glacier in the solar system is on Pluto, and it’s covered in organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life. We’ve never really seen Pluto until 2015 with the New Horizons mission. But now that we’ve seen it, we’ve discovered all these things. In my view, we need to learn a lot more. 

But I would also say Mars is fascinating in itself. The idea is that Mars used to be covered in ocean in its northern hemisphere. It used to have a thick atmosphere and a magnetosphere that protected it from the radiation of deep space. All of those things basically tell us that Mars was at one time in its history habitable. It doesn’t mean it was inhabited, but it was habitable. And we also know that even today, Mars is covered in complex organic compounds, the building blocks of life. Our own Moon is not—there are no organic compounds on the Moon. But they are all over Mars. Of course, they are all over Earth. We know that Mars has seasons. The methane cycles of Mars match the seasons of Mars, which also increases the probability of finding life. And we believe we have found liquid water under the surface of Mars about 12 kilometers under the surface. That liquid water is also protected from radiation from deep space. So all of these things add up to say that there’s a probability we could find some type of microbial life on Mars as well. So I think Mars is a fascinating place. That’s where we need to go next, and we need to have humans there quickly. I think Europa is an interesting place that we need to study robotically, and I think that goes for Pluto as well.  

WW: Awesome. Thank you so much for all of those insights.  

JB: Thank you for having me. I look forward to talking again.